Faith, works and salvation.

Our conversation on salvation and atonement focused on two questions at our most recent gathering: (i) how do our understandings of salvation fare in the interaction between Christianity and other faith traditions? And, (ii) how is the issue of “faith versus works” related to salvation?

These two questions seemed to us to be pieces of the same puzzle in many ways. We talked about a hypothetical next-door neighbor who was a fine human being and who acted in kind and thoughtful ways, yet was of a different faith tradition. What about this individual when it comes to questions of salvation? Does this neighbor being kind and thoughtful have anything to do with salvation issues or are these “good works” irrelevant?

We talked briefly about the split in the historic tradition that occurred at the time of the Reformation in Europe when there was a backlash against various ideas that were thought by some to lean towards “works righteousness” in the life of the church. The swing to the opposite position then led to the stance that “faith alone” leads to salvation. There is the notion in the Wesleyan tradition that faith leads to good works of necessity such that the absence of good works is an indicator of the absence of faith. Wesley had thought about the extreme cases (such as the person who comes to faith but then drops dead of a heart attack immediately and so exhibits no “good works”) and wrote of the need for “time and opportunity” for good works to be exhibited, but in the general case saw that faith and good works are like the two sides of a piece of paper: you can’t have one without the other.

We thought about those who have never been exposed to Christianity in any way (the individual in the middle of the rain forest entered into the conversations once again – we may need to get him his own chair!) and saw that God’s grace reaches out to all people in various ways and that there seems to be ample evidence in Scripture and through personal experience that people can only respond to the grace that is extended to them and no more. In other words, we came to the position that a person who has no opportunity to know anything about Christ is not to be held responsible for that in any way. In fact, the notion that God acts first in extending grace to individuals really puts the ball in God’s court. If God has not provided any possible way for a person to know anything about Christ, then it would surely be inconsistent with an understanding of God’s character as one of grace to think that God would hold the individual responsible for that. The “time and opportunity” argument of Wesley would seem to apply here too.

However, we are still left with that tricky, hypothetical next-door neighbor to deal with! This person lives next door to us and drives past churches, sees books on Christianity in shops, talks with Christians, sees church services on TV, and so on, almost every day. There is no question that there is “time and opportunity”, to use Wesley’s words rather out of context, for this neighbor to encounter Christ.

Ultimately, we came down to the crux of the matter when one of us asked for reactions to the statement, “there is only one pathway that leads to God”. We considered the various positions that have been (and still are) held by people in response to this statement. It seems there is a continuum of opinion. At one end of the continuum is the position that “I am right and anyone who disagrees with me is wrong”. A step away from this position takes us to, “I am right and although the position of others may have some value it is still in large part wrong”. The continuum ultimately branches into two – one branch leads to the position, “Everyone is right and all faiths are culturally-conditioned expressions that seek after the same God”. The other branch leads to the position, “Everyone is wrong and there is no God”. We explored where we might be on this continuum and came up with a variety of responses that clustered in several areas:

Reaction 1: I have no idea if there is only one pathway or if there are many pathways that lead to God. The basis of this position is that we are called to be witnesses to our faith and not judges. Any comment on the validity of another path is a judgment and that is the prerogative of God.

Reaction 2: There is only one path but the path to salvation does not end at death and so there is “time and opportunity” after death for everyone to encounter the living God and enter a state of salvation. Ultimately then, all persons can (perhaps will) be at one with God.

Reaction 3: All faiths are culturally-conditioned expressions that seek after the same God but not all paths are equally useful (or, perhaps, valid). Hence there is a call to witness to the most useful (valid ?) path to God and that call falls to us.

Reaction 4:
The atonement was a once-and-for-all event that makes possible the coming together of all people with God, whether they recognize its validity or not. In fact, if we are required to recognize its validity that is in itself a form of “works” and hence denies the all-encompassing action of God in effecting salvation.

Clearly there is a complex interplay of faith/works in considering these questions which will no doubt become more and more important in a post-Christendom era in the US when many faith groups are called to co-exist. It is one thing to understand the range of understandings of a group of Christians in this arena, but what the range of understandings that others might have? How would a group of Jews or a group of Muslims, for example, respond to these issues? How might we find out the answers to such questions?

7 Comments

  1. Brad

    In my experience, Christians are in more dire need of salvation than non-Christians. Christians become much like the Pharisees, as depicted by Matthew’s Gospel, when they insist they have the one pathway to God. To so many, salvation is understood primarily in relation to the after-life and is attained by assenting to a set of propositions, first and foremost of which is that Jesus is the Son of God. Among many Evangelicals, this intellecual assent is articulated by “asking Jesus into your heart”, a doctrine completely extra-biblical and developed less than two hundred years ago, being foreign to eighteen hundred years of Christian tradition. When Jesus taught about salvation, he seems to have been more concerned with this life than the next. However, when he did speak of the after-life, in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus did not state an intellectual assent as the measure by which one would be saved. His standard was the way one treats others. Salvation, as I interpret it, is living loved. Salvation occurs as a state of being when one recognizes that God loves her unconditionally. Salvation occurs through relationships becoming whole, life being imbued with meaning, and self-worth being affirmed. The inevitable response to living loved is to love, radically and profoundly. In my experience, these attributes have seldom characterized Christians who insist there is a set of beliefs and religious practices to ascribe as the means to salvation. I have met many who live loved and who love, yet they do not recognize Jesus as the Son of God. Their status concerns me far less than that of many Christians. So, to answer the issue about the neighbor who is not a “Christian”, I think we should be more concerned with the neighbor who is a Christian. As one considering ministry, my ministry will be directed toward saving Christians through the Gospel message they can quote yet fail to understand.

  2. Julian A. Davies

    Brad – you have me wondering now about that well-known expression “ask Jesus into your heart”…..

    I guess it is a Romans 10:9-10 paraphrase (not an especially good one, if that is indeed its origin…), but I wonder how/when it became so widespread. You mention that it developed less than 200 years ago … if you have time to expand on that I would appreciate learning some more about the history as I really don’t know.

    I take the point of your introductory words (“Christians are in more dire need of salvation than non-Christians”) but in the absence of further elaboration would suspect that you are emulating Jesus in the use of hyperbolic rhetoric 🙂 Is the Muslim who asserts that there is only one path to God in the same boat, whatever boat that might be, as the Christian who says it? Assuming that the Muslim and Christian are talking about different paths, then either they are both wrong or one is right and the other is wrong (at least I think those are the options, aren’t they?). I guess the point here is that it isn’t only (some) Evangelical Christians who assert that there is one path…..

    I think that the points you raise about wholeness and love in contrast with intellectual assent to propositions are good ones.

    More to follow, I suspect…..

  3. Bill

    I gotta confess that I’m a one-way guy. The one way to me is to live your life in the way exemplified by Christ. Can someone do that without knowing who He was (is)? I reckon. I agree that there are probably lots of Christians who aren’t on the “narrow path.” Probably plenty of non-Christians, too. Makes me glad we don’t have to judge.

  4. Brad

    Perhaps I should state more clearly that there does seem to me only one pathway to God – the path of love and humility. Salvation, however, is not postponed until the end of the path. We do not take a pathway to salvation; rather, we take the path of salvation. Therefore, whether Christian or Muslim, any position that determines a standard to be met in order to achieve salvation, be it a standard of intellectual assent or a number of tasks to be performed, is a position contrary to Christ’s, in my opinion.

    As for the idea of asking Jesus into one’s heart, it is one that developed sometime during the nineteenth century and was popularized by Moody. Prior to the nineteenth century, there are no sermons exhorting people to ask Jesus into their heart. This certainly is not a biblical concept and completely neglects Christ’s emphasis of repentance.

  5. Olorin

    Brad said:
    “Among many Evangelicals, this intellecual assent is articulated by “asking Jesus into your heart”, a doctrine completely extra-biblical and developed less than two hundred years ago, being foreign to eighteen hundred years of Christian tradition.”
    . . . .
    “As for the idea of asking Jesus into one’s heart, it is one that developed sometime during the nineteenth century and was popularized by Moody. Prior to the nineteenth century, there are no sermons exhorting people to ask Jesus into their heart. This certainly is not a biblical concept and completely neglects Christ’s emphasis of repentance.”

    Dear Brad,
    First, I agree with your emphasis on seeking a corrective to views of salvation that relegate transformation to a later phase of existence without developing Christlikeness here and now. .But, and
    I hope to not have misunderstood your language (and please let me know if it was ambiguous or some such), I am somewhat concerned at what seems to be a rather disparaging portrait of certain language re the process of salvation as a seeking of Jesus to dwell in one’s heart.

    The Apostle Paul seems to disagree with you.
    2 Cor 12:9 9 And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
    Eph 3:14-17 14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, 16 that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith;
    Col 3:16 16 Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

    The Early Church Father Cyprian (d. A.D. 258) seems to disagree with you.
    “He who made the sun and moon was a greater light in your dungeon, and the brightness of Christ glowing in your hearts and minds, irradiated with that eternal and brilliant light the gloom of the place of punishment, which to others was so horrible and deadly” (ca. A.D. 250, Epistles of Cyprian 15.2; ANF 5:295).
    “By his mouth, therefore, and by his words, is every one at once betrayed; and whether he has Christ in his heart, or Antichrist, is discerned in his speaking, according to what the Lord says in His Gospel, “O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. A good man out of the good treasure bringeth forth good things; and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things.” (ca. A.D. 250, Epistles of Cyprian 54.3; ANF 5:339–40).
    “What now must be the vigour, beloved brethren, of your victorious consciousness, what the loftiness of your mind, what exultation in feeling, what triumph in your breast, that every one of you stands near to the promised reward of God, are secure from the judgment of God, walk in the mines with a body captive indeed, but with a heart reigning, that you know Christ is present with you” (Epistles of Cyprian 76.7; ANF 5:404).
    “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God they are the sons of God.” If we are the sons of God, if we are already beginning to be His temples, if, having received the Holy Spirit, we are living holily and spiritually, if we have raised our eyes from earth to heaven, if we have lifted our hearts, filled with God and Christ, to things above and divine, let us do nothing but what is worthy of God and Christ” ( Treatises of Cyprian 10.14; ANF 5:495).

    The Early Church Father Methodius (d. ca. A.D. 311) sems to disagree with you.
    “Let us then go over the ground again from the beginning, until we come in course to the end, explaining what we have said. Consider if the passage seems to you to be explained to your mind. For I think that the Church is here said to give birth to a male; since the enlightened receive the features, and the image, and the manliness of Christ, the likeness of the form of the Word being stamped upon them, and begotten in them by a true knowledge and faith, so that in each one Christ is spiritually born. And, therefore, the Church swells and travails in birth until Christ is formed in us, so that each of the saints, by partaking of Christ, has been born a Christ. According to which meaning it is said in a certain scripture, “Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm,” as though those who were baptized into Christ had been made Christs by communication of the Spirit, the Church contributing here their clearness and transformation into the image of the Word. And Paul confirms this, teaching it plainly, where he says: “For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened I with might by His Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith.” For it is necessary that the word of truth should be imprinted and stamped upon the souls of the regenerate” (Methodius, The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, Discourse 8, Thekla, ch. 8; ANF 6:337; ECF 1.6.15.1.7.8).

    And there are many more who seem to disagree with your characterization of the language of “asking Jesus into your heart” as a “completely extra-biblical” neo-theological concept arising only since “the nineteenth century.”
    One should be careful in castigating other segments of the church, for it is by our love for one another that the world will know Christ is who he said he is (e.g., John 17:23), and schismatics (those who create divisions in the church) have been viewed as bad as heretics in church history.

    I pray your admirable zeal may be directed ever and always according to greater knowledge for service to Christ’s kingdom (cf., e.g., Rom 10:2).

    Agape, Jacques.

  6. Brad

    Hmmm…I think maybe I overly emphasized the problem (as I see it) at the expense of the solution. Thank you, Olorin, for your comments. Begging your pardon, I will try now to clarify.

    My criticism is of the conversion method that preaches about Jesus, then instructs listeners to ask Jesus into their hearts. As a figure of speach, I am not critical of speaking of Jesus as residing in one’s heart, just as we might speak of loving someone “with all of our heart”.

    That notwithstanding, I would rather speak of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling than Jesus’s. The Holy Spirit has a rather subjugated role in the contemporary Church compared with its role in the ancient church.

    But that is not my main point. I’ll accept the idea of Jesus residing in one’s heart, but it must follow repentence. Romans is gravely misinterpreted when the passage about “confessing” and “believing” is understood as a lesson teaching the method of conversion. Romans is written to people (probably Gentiles) who have already acknowledged Jesus as Lord, Messiah, Christ, etc. Paul is not instructing them how to receive Christ; he is correcting bad theology following their conversion. The conversion sermons of John the Baptizer, Jesus, and Peter exhorted the listeners to repent. Thus, to say that Christ dwells within me, should be a figurative statement that indicates my repentant attitude in response to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Christ’s indwelling should be understood as describing a state of being.

    Summarized, my assertion is that “asking Jesus into one’s heart” is an extra-biblical conversion method. I don’t have a problem with talking about Christ’s indwelling as evidenced throughout one’s life by his repentent way of life.

  7. Brad

    Is there a difference between speaking of Jesus and speaking of Christ? All of the quotations cited by Olorin refer to Christ’s indwelling. Yet, Evangelicals often ask Jesus into their hearts. Perhaps Christ is actually the second person of the Trinity, and Jesus is the earthly, human embodiment of Christ. I am not sure, but there does seem to be a tendency throughout the Church’s history to speak of Christ’s present influence but Jesus’s past influence. Should we really pray to Jesus? What did he have to say about it? What does tradition indicate?

Thanks for visiting!